BY MARK GODFREY
Friday night’s giant-killing act by renowned FA Cup shock artists Blyth Spartans may not only have been a triumph for the lads who pulled on the famous green and white jerseys down at Hartlepool’s Victoria Park, but also for the population of a much-maligned town who revel in the rare opportunities to boast afforded to it by the football club’s exploits.
Blyth, if you’re unaware of exactly where it is, lies in the county of Northumberland on the North Sea coast approximately 15 miles north east of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, the region’s dominant city. Just like so many northern towns of its ilk, it grew and prospered on the back of the industrial revolution; shipbuilding, railways, fishing and, most prevalently, the ‘black diamond’ – coal. But a hundred years on from the boom time, decay and decline decimated those mass employers; the mining heartbeat of Blyth was extinguished for good during the turbulent Thatcher years.
Since then, the town has struggled to find its feet, and perhaps more importantly, its own identity. Sadly, within the area to which it belongs, it hasn’t had the same difficulty shaking off a reputation often unfairly given to it. One could almost brand the good people of Blyth as ‘the Scousers of the North East’ – continuously labelled as addicts, thieves and ruffians. With the economic and social odds stacked against it, Blyth takes immense pride in the one thing that gives it positive, national exposure – Blyth Spartans.
The Croft Park club was a mainstay of the Northern League for many years before promotion in the 1990’s. Having peaked in the Conference North a few years ago, they currently play in the Evo Stik Northern Premier League in front of average crowds of around 450.
Being in such close proximity to Newcastle, the allure of the Premier League giants tends to overshadow everything football related, although there is also a reasonable Sunderland fan base and, of course, the usual collection of people who attach themselves to the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool. But despite these outside attractions, there exists a strong underlying connection that draws most of these people back to Spartans to stand alongside the hardy souls who brave the bitter North Sea wind that sweeps through Croft Park on a more regular basis.
The affinity with which Blyth Spartans is held becomes apparent whenever the FA Cup comes to town. The game with Hartlepool was the 14th occasion in Blyth’s 114-year history that the non-leaguers have participated in the second round of the world’s most famous cup competition and the upcoming third round engagement will be the fourth time they’ve been in the proverbial hat at the same time as English football’s luminaries join the lower league and part-time survivors.
Mention the name Blyth Spartans to most football fans in this country and their response is likely to contain the words ‘FA Cup’. Say the words ‘FA Cup’ in Blyth and normally undemonstrative, pragmatic Geordie folk become animated and dreamy-eyed. Every year during the qualifying rounds, any kind of run creates a buzz amongst the die-hard fans, but once the first round proper hoves into view the whole place comes alive with Cup chatter; bringing hope to a town where hope can often be thin on the ground and – if you’ll pardon the pun – life can be very spartan.
Younger fans will remember their cup exploits of 2008/09 when having already dispatched League opposition in the form of Shrewsbury in round one and Bournemouth in round two, Premier League Blackburn Rovers – managed by ex-Newcastle boss Sam Allardyce (given a ‘warm’ reception by the locals on the night) – arrived at Croft Park on a freezing cold January evening in the third round; the graveyard of the big boys. Big Sam’s men advanced courtesy of a Carlos Villanueva free-kick but the 3,445 in attendance had a night to remember thanks to Harry Dunn’s brave Spartans.
Even more memorable, and indeed still in the record books, are the feats of 1977/78, which for the people of Blyth are the stuff of legend; tales of derring-do that they’ve grown up with, like stories of Robin Hood and his Merry Men – but for Robin Hood read Jackie Marks and for the Merry Men, players like Alan Shoulder, Terry Johnson and Eddie Alder. That season, Spartans sandwiched a victory over Chesterfield in the second round with wins over non-league Burscough and Enfield; the latter earning a fourth round glamour tie with Second Division giants Stoke City – a side containing Howard Kendall, Terry Conroy, Alec Lindsay and a young striker by the name of Garth Crooks. Incredibly, in scenes similar to that of their most recent Cup conquest, the Northumbrian minnows came from behind to snatch a last minute winner at Stoke’s Victoria Ground.
The reward was – potentially at least – the dream scenario; Newcastle at St.James’ Park. Unfortunately, the Magpies themselves were ignominiously dumped out of the Cup by Wrexham robbing Blyth of the greatest day in the club’s history. However, after a cruel draw at the Racecourse Ground (Wrexham controversially equalised in the final minute after a three-times retaken corner kick), Blyth did get to run out at St.James’ Park in the replay in front of over 42,000 (the highest attendance at Newcastle that season). With the songs of the Blyth masses ringing in their ears, Spartans ran their lofty opponents close before succumbing 2-1. They had eventually fallen at the fifth round stage – a record only accomplished by six other clubs since the Second World War – and having tied their first encounter with Wrexham, were actually drawn to play the mighty Arsenal in the Quarter-Finals had they advanced.
Following the win over Hartlepool, and just like in the Decembers of 1977 and 2009, the town of Blyth is once again coming alive – not just with pre-Christmas merriment, but with the anticipation of more famous FA Cup glory. Whichever club is chosen from the pot to play Spartans in the third round, they will certainly not relish the prospect of facing today’s eleven proud young men in green and white stripes. But potentially more fearsome will be the combined weight of history, FA Cup folk lore and the voracious hunger of the vociferous Blyth support to take yet another high profile scalp to metaphorically hang on the walls of the clubhouse.
To learn more about the history of Blyth Spartans visit the excellent http://blythspirit.wordpress.com/